Emergency Training Emphasizes Horse Handling Skills, Practical Equipment

"Keep your knee gently pressed into her neck, and if she decides to get up, go ahead and let her, don't fight it." An emergency instructor gave this advice to a firefighter learning to hold down a horse acting as an injured animal during a demonstration of applying webbing to help retrieve a horse's body from inside an overturned horse trailer. The firefighter was a student in one of two classes in a Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER, www.tlaer.com) course that was offered in mid-March at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) in Richmond, Ky.

The student and horse were "trapped" inside a plywood ring that simulated trailer walls. Normally a person would never be allowed to go inside an overturned trailer with the horse, but for the live demonstrations in these courses, the animals are not sedated and lie down repeatedly to allow the students to practice horse handling in real-life scenarios. These situations include horses stuck in overturned trailers, under collapsed barns, in mud, or upside down in ditches.

Preparation for taking care of horses in emergencies and disasters starts with training for emergency responders (firefighters, rescue squad members, veterinarians, police, humane, animal control and sheriff's officers, and search and rescue volunteers) to be able to properly and safely manipulate and "package" an injured animal for transport from an incident scene. Back-to-back TLAER classes were held at EKU in a partnership with USRider Equestrian Motor Plan (www.usrider.org), which is a nationwide trailering assistance program created for equestrians. From basic dangers of using horses' legs as handles to helicopter rescue techniques, the course covered a vast amount of information related to large animal rescue, disasters, and even bioterrorism.

The instructors feel it is just as important that the students learn about equine behavior and reactions as it is to understand the techniques of packaging or moving their 1,400-pound patient with webbing and equipment. Since normal humans have a see-decide-react time of 1.6 seconds to novel stimuli, and horses can pick up their hind leg, kick, then set the leg back down in less than 0.2 seconds, this theoretically means that a human can get kicked several times before being able to move. Sadly, the medical statistics for the horse industry in general bear this truth out: Horse owners and handlers are injured and killed, and equine veterinarians endure a much higher number of injuries and fractures over their working lives in comparison with other medical professions.

Larry Collins, MS, EdD, of EKU's College of Justice, Department of Fire Prevention and Safety, and coordinator of the TLAER course, said, "There is no reason for a human to get injured trying to assist an animal. This course constantly reinforces safety for the humans first, and the animal victims second."
 
Dustin Flannery, a firefighter and newly accepted fire administration student at EKU, volunteered to participate in the course. On the third day, in his swift-water rescue gear, he led a horse into 40 degree water for a short demonstration of a floatation device that can be used for large animals trapped in water. "I learned so much in this three day class," said Flannery. "I have never even petted a horse before this class. I got a private lesson after the course was over on leading a horse into a trailer; that seemed to be important."

Assistant instructors from across the country included Al and Sarah Filice, San Jose, Calif.; Sandy Mayberry, Winston-Salem, N.C.; Roberta Dwyer, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVPM. Georgetown, Ky.; and Lt. (Ret.) Jeff Galloway, Crossville, Tenn.

Tomas Gimenez, Dr.Med.Vet, and his wife, Rebecca, PhD, of Clemson, S.C., were the primary instructors. The Gimenezes brought the equine participants for the hands-on laboratories: Their Paint filly Aerial, a National Walking Horse, Elecktra, and their llama, Dexter. While the majority of students were from Central Kentucky, others were from New Mexico, Colorado, and Maryland. The entire course was photographed for an upcoming book on the subject, and it was videotaped for an upcoming national television special to enhance awareness of TLAER and safety around large animals in on-road incidents.

Lt. Dennis Blackburn, a firefighter in Lexington, Ky., attended the course for the second time. "I learned so much the first time, it was worth it to me to attend again. I own horses and have responded to these types of incidents before. The training is very useful and keeps me sharp for future incidents, plus gives me information I can take back to my department."

He shared numerous stories, especially the one in which his own horse was able to back out of a gooseneck trailer, still attached to a bungee-cord type trailer tie. The instructors singled out these bungee-type ties as deadly weapons to horses and humans. These ties store so much energy that when the animal panics and the ties fail, they take out eyes and cut faces. The instructors said the perfect solution is something in the system that will break under a load, such as a hay string, leather, or Velcro.

Each course teaches rescue techniques, but each was customized to the participants, with first responders' courses targeting the behavior, handling, and rescue of the large animals. Of 30 firefighters attending the EKU course, only five admitted to having horses or ever having handled them, and the attendees estimated that 95% of emergency personnel have no knowledge about horses. For equine-experienced students, mechanical rope systems for lifting animals out of ditches, correcting an overturned trailer, incident command, communications, and logistics were taught in addition to rescue technique. For photos of the event, click here.

All students participated in a staged night search and rescue for an "injured" horse and rider on the back side of 700 acres of EKU's Meadowbrook Farm. Students had to deal effectively with catching a loose "horse" in the dark (in this case, Dexter the llama), performing triage on the injured horse, containing the horse, and dealing with a frantic owner and a bystander with a possible cardiac condition. After all the rescuers arrived at the scene, the "horse" was sedated and packaged onto a Rescue Glide (the equine equivalent of a medical backboard), and dragged uphill to a waiting equine ambulance.

A recurrent theme of the course was learning to use human equipment already available on a fire/rescue truck or EMS ambulance for a patient that the instructors referred to as "1,400 pounds, absolutely terrified, wears steel shoes, reacts within 0.3 seconds, and does not speak English." They showed various equipment and techniques to the students, but most maneuvers included simple webbing, rope systems, fire hose, cribbing (lumber), metal-cutting tools, and gear for air or water injection as would be used for a extracting a human victim.

The instructors even shared practical TLAER applications of tampons (inserted in the horse's ear to dampen noise before metal cutting equipment is used), a bra (eye protection for an injured eye, or as a blindfold), a cane (crucial for handling legs and moving ropes or webbing on and around the animal without being kicked), and dark-colored bed sheets (to cover a dead animal on the side of the road to prevent bystanders from seeing it.)

Over the last 15 years, TLAER has been integrated in many areas, and it is spreading to include concerned horse communities and veterinary practices across the country. Captain John Fox and his wife, Debra, of the Felton Fire Department in Felton, Calif., are leading the effort to get emergency responders trained throughout California; Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington responds to several equine emergencies a week with their trained staff and ambulance; University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine's Veterinary Emergency Treatment Services (VETS) program is a part of the State Animal Response Team (SART); and many others examples have taken on the challenge of managing TLAER for their localities.

Horse owners and veterinarians can get involved by learning about disaster management through taking free online "Animals in Disasters" courses through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at www.training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/IS/is10.asp and getting to know the fire and emergency management personnel in their communities. With the constant transport of horses throughout the country, an incident involving large animals can happen any time. As responsible horse owners, you should determine if fire and emergency personnel in your area are prepared and trained to respond properly.

A TLAER awareness video is free upon written request from individuals, organizations, farms, and first responder groups on letterhead to: Large Animal Rescue Video, USRider Equestrian Motor Plan, PO Box 54711, Lexington, KY, 40555. The request should indicate when the video will be viewed and the approximate number of people who will view it.

USRider, through its Leg-Up Fund, provided the seed money for the first-of-its-kind Large Animal Rescue Endowment Fund at EKU. Individuals, companies, and organizations can send donations to the Division of University Development, CPO 19A, Jones 324, Eastern Kentucky University, 521 Lancaster Ave., Richmond, KY, 40475, or by calling 859/622-1583.--Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, and Roberta Dwyer, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVPM

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